When clients come in to discuss their potential trademark filings, they often have misconceptions about what makes a “good” trademark and what value a trademark can bring to a business. That’s partly because trademarks (or “marks” for short) are easily confused with other types of intellectual property, especially copyright, which is a related but completely separate type of protection over creative works. Confusion also stems from the somewhat counterintuitive nature of trademark law and the rules regarding trademark registration.
One way to understand what makes a “good” trademark is to know what the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) looks for when granting or denying trademark registration. To that end, this will be the first in a series of posts on the most common hurdles to trademark registration that we see in our everyday practice.
Whether you’re considering a potential mark to use in your business or you’re already using a mark that you’re thinking about registering, familiarity with these basic trademark issues will make it easier to navigate the registration process and get the most brand value for your business.
DISCLAIMER – These posts are only intended to offer basic information about trademarks and cannot be considered legal advice. If you have any questions about your particular trademark, contact us.
Trademark Registration Hurdle #1: Descriptiveness
It’s fairly common (and understandable) that clients want to their mark to convey to their customers what their product or service is. However, from a trademark perspective, this can be problematic as we often have to warn clients that their mark is potentially descriptive.
From a trademark perspective, descriptiveness means that the USPTO may find that the mark describes qualities, ingredients, or characteristics of some or all of the goods or services offered under the mark. The situation can be serious because a Descriptive mark may not be registrable, and thus not protectable, without resorting to significant expense.
One of the fundamental principles of trademark law is that the more unusual a mark is (i.e. the more unique or different from the goods and services it covers) the stronger the protection the mark offers. The inverse is also true; the more descriptive the mark is of the goods and services, the weaker the protection—or in the case of merely descriptive marks or generic terms, no protection at all since the USPTO will completely refuse registration. It’s therefore in a trademark owner’s interest to make the mark as non-descriptive as possible. The more non-descriptive, the better protection the mark carries and the easier it will be to register with the USPTO.
But what does non-descriptive mean?
Trademarks are divided into four categories: Fanciful, Arbitrary, Suggestive, and Descriptive. Fanciful, Arbitrary, and Suggestive marks are considered inherently distinctive and are registrable, while Descriptive marks are generally not registrable without evidence of acquired distinctiveness. There is also a category called Generic, but there is no such thing as a “generic” trademark because generic terms can never be used as a trademark.
Marks that are Fanciful or Arbitrary have no connection to the goods and services they represent (famous examples include APPLE for computers or XEROX for copiers). The difference between Fanciful and Arbitrary marks is that Fanciful marks are typically made-up words, e.g. GOOGLE and XEROX, whereas Arbitrary marks are actual words that bear no relation to the goods sold or services offered, e.g. APPLE, TWITTER, etc.
With Suggestive marks, there is a connection between the mark and the goods and services, but it’s only “suggested,” meaning that it requires the consumer to think or use their imagination to find the connection. Last year a federal court in California held that PINTEREST was a “textbook example” of a Suggestive mark for a website that allows users to pin their interests on a virtual board and share it with others.
As mentioned above, Descriptive marks describe some aspect of the goods or services they cover. For example, a few weeks ago the USPTO refused to register the mark WEEPING ANGEL, finding it merely descriptive of funerary urns featuring (you guessed it) a weeping angel (see case summary and photos here), and a recent federal case upheld NOPALEA as descriptive for a dietary supplement containing nopal juice. Depending on how descriptive the mark is, a Descriptive mark may be able to “acquire distinctiveness,” which typically requires the mark owner to show continuous, exclusive, and substantial use of the mark in commerce (not always an easy burden). Really descriptive marks (also called merely descriptive) cannot even use acquired distinctiveness to become registered.
Generic words are a step beyond describing the goods and services in that they use the actual words or synonyms for the goods/services in the mark. Websites are commonly found to be generic—Hotels.com, Sportsbetting.com, and Buyautoparts.com were all refused registration because they are generic for the services offered by the website. See the case summary for Hotels.com here.
Choosing a less descriptive mark will help you avoid a descriptiveness rejection at the USPTO. Moreover, beyond registrability, the less descriptive your mark, the stronger it is. We’ll cover this more in an upcoming post, but for now, the chart below should be a useful guide:
Bottom line: Choosing a mark is a challenging task, and business owners often want to pick something that will give customers a good idea about the product or services offered under the mark. But the more descriptive a mark is, the less trademark protection you get and the harder it is to register. This can make it even more challenging to distinguish a business in the marketplace and make it harder to compete for customers in the long run.
Stay tuned for our next post on: Names in Trademarks